Opposition to Code Violation Reporting

by Sheila McElwaine
(Springfield MA)

Reviewed: May 31, 2024

Visitor Question: For over thirty years, a few activists in our neighborhood have gotten good results from systematically reporting exterior code violations. But there have always been people who oppose reporting exterior violations on the grounds that it targets owners who are "having a hard time" or that reporting violations is simply not "neighborly" or "nice", that corrections cost a lot and that violators would surely make needed improvements if they were able to.

Code reporters contend that reporting exterior violations addresses health and safety, provides residents with a means of making positive change in their neighborhood and that the way a neighborhood looks has an effect of newcomers' willingness to stay or to leave, to move into the neighborhood or to look elsewhere.

Public officials and the police have been cooperative in taking action once violations have been reported.

Do you have any advice about how to reconcile these points of view?

Editors Reply: The short answer to your question is that reconciling these viewpoints may never be possible, but you may be able to do some things to mitigate the objections to code violation reporting.

Taking these arguments one at a time, let's look at the objection that owners may be having a hard time financially and that they would make improvements if they could. Based on my experience as the supervisor of the code inspectors (and therefore the resolution point person in city hall if someone objected to the inspectors' actions), I would say that some people who receive citations genuinely cannot afford the repairs.
However, I allowed the municipal judge or administrative hearing officer to ferret out the truthfulness of that argument. I don't think judgments about whether the person can afford to make the repairs should be a factor in whether or not a citation is issued.

Unlike some people in the community development field, I don't think everyone is cut out to be a homeowner. I always felt that if we gave a code violation letter to one of those owners who cannot afford the repairs, it might be a signal to that person that they should consider getting out of an untenable position—not being able to afford the upkeep on the property.

Regarding the financial capability argument, folks on the activist side could work toward connecting people who receive code citations to any home repair program resources available. Although far too meager, sometimes there are Community Development Block Grant, state, or local housing programs to help out. In some cities, corporate volunteers create a day each year or even each month for helping seniors especially, but potentially anyone, who cannot afford repairs. I am in favor of pointing out any feasible local programs that can help with expenses right in the initial notice of code violation.

Now let's look at the argument that code violation reporting is not neighborly or nice. There may be a grain of truth here; I always suggest that if relationships will allow, it's good practice to try to address the issue in person first. Granted though, the "if relationships will allow" test isn’t met very often.

More to the point in most cases, what I think is not neighborly or nice is allowing the exterior of one’s home to fall into disrepair. If we think deeply about this, most exterior violations really do impact the long-term viability of the home. When a roof or a porch problem is ignored, that could affect the entire neighborhood, not only in terms of property values (the argument often used), but also in the reputation of the neighborhood and the morale and investment motivation of the neighbors.

We are not in favor of rude and mean-spirited code enforcement. However, we find it to be a necessary tool to bring a problem to the attention of a homeowner. Contrary to what some in your neighborhood are saying, I do not find it to be universally true that people would surely make improvements if they were able to. Some people are oblivious, some have a very high tolerance for disorder, and some feel they can get by with doing nothing. A few don't recognize that if you leave a wooden structural element unpainted for years, eventually it will break down. Some even enjoy annoying their neighbors because they have gotten into a vendetta of some sort! So I think motivating people who are otherwise unmotivated is sometimes necessary.

The community's side of this though is that it is worth working toward a dependable fund to provide some homeowners in genuine financial need with a resource. Too often the code enforcement folks don't even work in the same department as those who work with community development or housing programs. Better coordination in city hall can reduce the burden on property owners with real financial constraints.

While these observations don't show you how to reconcile the viewpoints, I hope you can use some of these points to further the discussion.

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